Challenging our approach to conventional war: Another view on Ukraine

This post is the sequel to The Australian way of war: What is our military culture?  It is intended as an expansion and rebuttal to Brigadier Michael Ryan’s post, The Lessons of Ukraine for the Australian Army.

The war in Ukraine demonstrates that conventional land combat is a highly lethal and destructive endeavour. The Australian Army lacks the industrial capacity, personnel and logistics to sustain our current force structure in conventional land conflict, where we are almost certain to be outmatched in capability, size and power against large and increasingly complex threat groups. Barring a significant and sustained increase in size and capacity, the Army must question the assumptions of our approach to conventional land combat – characterised by Brigadier Michael Ryan’s recent article on the Ukraine - if we seek to compete against contemporary threat groups. To do so we must embrace truly revolutionary ideas – ideas such as the systematic adoption of asymmetric and insurgent methodologies - as fundamental elements of an ‘Australian way of war’.

The West, collectively, must be prepared to contest large scale, conventional land conflict - against actors on the scale and capacity of Russia, if necessary. The Australian Army must also be prepared to contribute to operational effects in large scale, conventional land conflict. But we should be far more deliberate in our consideration of what our specific approach to conventional land conflict is - and be careful to not draw too much from the experience of much larger, more capable actors – including the Ukrainian army. Our response to conventional and large scale threats must be balanced against our inherent limitations in industrial capacity and personnel. We should be prepared to acknowledge that although we have very capable, tactically astute and well trained manoeuvre commanders , we aspire to compete in a form of conventional land combat - mechanised, battle-group to divisional manoeuvre - that is as much, if not more reliant on size and capacity than on tactics and skill. While tactical acumen, bold manoeuvre and individual skill can have a significant impact - such as in the case of the Ukrainian 95th Airmobile Brigade's armoured raid into Russian territory - these are fleeting and rare opportunities.

In reality, the scale and lethality of conventional land combat in this form requires the force to be prepared to accept significant losses - losses that it is unlikely we would be prepared for. It is likely that the Army could identify examples from the recent Hamel exercise of such losses, but to give a sobering example from the war in Ukraine, in one particularly effective Russian artillery attack it took less than three minutes for two Ukrainian mechanized battalions to be destroyed by scattered mines, top attack munitions and thermobaric warheads. The consequences of a similar attack against an Australian conventional Brigade would be unthinkable. Even if we were to accept that Australia might be committed to a strategic objective that would offset the political or social ramifications of such a loss, we realistically do not have the capacity to take that many casualties and sustain operations. Brigadier Ryan is right to point out that highly lethal and capable armoured and artillery assets dominate the conventional land battle. But a key lesson we need to draw from the Ukraine – and all conflicts of a similar scale and nature - should be that major actors in conventional land conflict need to be able to accept massive operational losses and subsequently sustain operations.

If we are not the kind of force that could sustain such losses, the question then becomes how we can compete in conventional land combat, within the confines of our size and industrial capacity. But this is a question we are not prepared to answer unless we are prepared to question our fundamental assumptions about our approach to war. Brigadier Ryan provides an example in stating that 'high quality main battle tanks, with active and passive protection systems have achieved significant success by overmatching against Ukrainian vehicles' and that 'new generation Russian main battle tanks have also generated a psychological impact on opposing forces'. This is certainly true, but the lesson we are invited to take from this example is that we should retain and enhance our capacity in main battle tanks (and implicitly, the whole approach to war-fighting generated by the retention of large scale armoured capability).

We are so dedicated to maintaining this paradigm – the desire to be a conventional actor in land combat – that in our training and exercises we typically assume away the threats to our ability to retain our limited conventional war-fighting capacity. We deliberately design a ‘near-peer’ enemy to train against – fighting a deliberate construction that tests us just enough, but never truly challenges our fundamental approach to war fighting. The unfortunate reality is that in any credible conventional land combat scenario, either in a deployed contingency or in the defence of Australia, we would face actors that significantly overmatch us in size and capability - and to assume otherwise, that we could be so selective in our commitment to conflict that we could limit ourselves to a conveniently ‘near-peer’ enemy - is very dangerous. Before we become too satisfied with the efficacy of Russian tanks versus Ukrainian anti-tank weapons – we should consider that we would more than likely be the Ukraine of that scenario, on the wrong end of a capable conventional threat. Our approach to war fighting - our force structure, training, exercises and philosophical approach to conventional land combat - should take this into account. What we should learn from Brigadier Ryan's account of the Ukraine war is that main battle tanks and artillery are dominant forces in the conventional battle space – so we must either buy enough tanks and artillery to become a significant land force, our focus our efforts on innovative ways to neutralise and destroy them.

What can an army do if it is not seeking or is not capable of achieving overmatch in size and direct capability, but still allows it to compete against contemporary, high capacity threats? The Australian Army has the capacity to compete in conventional land combat in two ways. The first is to leverage against our actual strengths - our proportionately well trained, educated and skilled personnel, our self-proclaimed strength of adaptability and initiative at all levels of command, and our capacity for technical and tactical innovation. We should consider an ingrained asymmetric approach to conventional land combat that discards the use of conventional Battle-group, Brigade and Divisional manoeuvre and considers something wholly new and unique. We should consider non-western approaches to warfare such as the Iranian response to US overmatch in conventional capability - developing highly capable, well trained and well equipped forces that excel in dispersed, asymmetric operations. Take a lesson from our adversaries of the last fifteen years - asymmetric tactics can work for even unsophisticated, poorly trained and poorly equipped forces - as a deliberate approach by a professional army, they could be devastating.  Learn from the consistent success of our own forces when playing ‘enemy’ in major exercises – free from the constraints of our existing assumptions of how wars should be fought. The Ukraine war provides a clear example of the opportunities - 'wide dispersion creates opportunities for manoeuvre, especially armoured raiding behind enemy lines and along lines of communication'. Beyond the tactical and kinetic, we should expand our intelligence capability – our HUMINT and combat intelligence training is already world class – as a unique Australian strength, complementing it with investment in offensive cyber capability. Our overall investment in land equipment and modernisation should be focussed on increased lethality and protection for forces conducting dispersed raids and disruption operations - anti armoured, anti air weapon systems, autonomous systems to enhance local situational awareness and protection, and enhancements to individual sustainment and protection.

The rebuttal to this approach, and a major component of our rationale for the current approach to conventional war, is that this would put us at odds with other Western armies and compromise our ability to fight in a Coalition environment. But a different way to consider this problem is to understand that a wholly different approach to war on our part could complement our major alliance partners. We may be better served seeking to develop a unique, niche capability within our Army, that when integrated with a coalition partner, serves to make the force stronger. This speaks to the second component of our overall approach to war: in contrast to Brigadier Ryan's statements regarding the move away from capacity building and toward conventional land combat, the Australian Army might seek to use capacity building as one of our major weapons in the conventional land battle. The Australian Army could become world leaders at training, advising and assisting local security forces - fulfilling a niche capability on behalf of a Western coalition. Rather than duplicating coalition capabilities at a smaller scale, the Australian Army could provide a disproportionately valuable capability to a deployed force - light, mobile forces skilled at long range raiding, disruption, reconnaissance, and the training and fighting of local insurgencies.

Brigadier Ryan's assessment of the Ukraine war is entirely accurate, and within the confines of our existing approach to war provides valuable lessons on contemporary threats. But the Australian Army needs something more than that – a truly revolutionary idea – if we genuinely wish to be competitive in conventional land combat. A realistic appreciation of our capacity and contemporary threats would reveal that conventional land combat is lethal and highly destructive – and small armies inevitably turn to asymmetric tactics to contest more powerful opponents. We may find that it would pay dividends to take the asymmetric approach by choice - rather than bloody necessity.